Friday, August 9, 2013

On the Road Again

Have you dreamed of traveling around the world then writing about your travels and getting paid for it? A lot of beginning writers and lots of other people have done just that. There’s something glamorous about travel writing. You’ll definitely impress your friends when you tell them you’re off to another far-off land. For them, travel comes maybe once or twice a year during vacation time. But to travel whenever it beckons you is to them a dream come true. But is it that easy?

True there’s a touch of glamor surrounding world-journeys-for-pay. Getting started in it isn't all that difficult if you hustle enough, but since 9/11 things have changed, not only because of what happened on that fateful day, but also because the publishing markets have changed.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, most readers got their information about other places from reading articles in magazines and travel guides. Since then the market has drastically shifted to include videos, podcasts, and hundreds if not thousands of Web sites with information on where to go and what to do. So the market for travel articles isn’t what it used to be.

Secondly, for the most part, you’ll make more if you work for minimum wage at McDonald’s than if you traveled the world and wrote travel articles. Have you seen what it costs to travel today? Compare those travel costs with what editors normally pay for travel pieces. No, I don’t mean the ones in Travel and Leisure and National Geographic Traveler. I’m talking about the majority of travel markets. The pay is pitiful for the amount of time and energy involved.

But still many writers try to break into this field. That’s because it seems to easy to everyone. Retired doctors who have the bucks to travel think they can dabble in travel writing. Retired teachers, who have the time and some bucks want to do the same. But how would they feel if you, the writer, wanted to dabble in medicine or teaching. You might be able to do the latter, but certainly not the former. To say the field is overcrowded is an understatement.

If you want to succeed in travel writing—and not just dabble in it—you have to work hard and be extremely organized. Remember, every moment you spend traveling is time spent, time for which you need to get paid.

Today, you pretty much have to have the means to travel to do travel writing full-time—or a spouse who will pay the bills while you travel and write about it. It used to be that airlines, hotels, and the like gave writers discounts or free transportation or accommodation. That isn’t so true anymore. Many hotels still give discounts and free rooms, but you have to get there, and the cost of doing that could hit you out of the ballpark. It doesn’t make sense to spend a $1,000 on a trip, only to make $200 on the article that results from it. So that means you’ll need to write and publish five $200 articles from that same trip to make up for the cost. And in reality, you probably won’t get paid $200 for each article, but less, which means you’ll have to publish a whole bunch of articles to make that trip pay for itself—and that doesn’t include any profit.

If you’re serious about travel writing, there are some things to do before you start packing. Discuss your travel plans with several editors—in person, by phone, or by email—regarding  places you'll be visiting, people you'd consider interviewing, and so forth. Often one or more of them will give you a noncommittal letter of introduction from them. This letter doesn't actually commit them to publishing any of your writing, but it helps open some doors, especially in foreign countries. At the least it should help establish that you are a working writer looking for good material. If you cannot get such a letter—and as a beginner that’s nearly impossible—then  take with you some backup material such as copies of your articles to present when strangers ask who you are and why you're asking all those questions.

Once you get established as a travel writer, you may, with luck, get a letter of assignment from an editor. This is the only way you’ll get any help with costs from hotels and such. Editors won’t hesitate to give one of their regular writers one of these, but they usually don’t give them to writers they don’t know.  Letters of assignment can get you out of tight situations when traveling, but more so they can get you into many museums and private libraries for your research and perhaps get you private tours with curators.

NEXT WEEK: More on travel writing.

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